law firm management issues

#BizDevTip: Clients don’t give you work just because they like the sound of your voice on the phone

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Yesterday I read a quote in the Australian Financial Review (AFR) that really resonated with me as a business development coach to law firm partners and senior lawyers.

The quote in question was by Aris Kekedjian – who is Vice-President & Managing Director, Global Business Development/M&A at GE – and was made in relation to the recent divestment of GE Capital and its assets.

What Kekedjian said was this:

“People don’t wire you billions of dollars because they like your voice on the phone.”

Precisely.

Now, just print that quote off and put it next to your phone please.

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#BigLaw is far from dead

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Has the death knell of #BigLaw been rung too early?

Despite all rhetoric to the contrary, three reports published within the past week would suggest that the business model of #BigLaw is far from dead.

  1.  Citi Private Bank’s Law Firm Group report*

The first, published in the American Lawyer, was Citi Private Bank’s Law Firm Group‘s quarterly report on financial performance in the legal industry.

While this report headlined as ‘Despite Growth, Law Firm Forecast Dims for 2015‘, it is worth noting the following three paragraphs from the report:

“Looking at the results by firm size, the Am Law 100 firms saw demand and revenue momentum build. For the Am Law 1-50, part of the positive momentum is due to some moderation in 2014 results from the first quarter to the first half. The Am Law 100 firms are also better poised than smaller firms for near-term revenue growth, given that they had comparably larger inventory increases (especially in accounts receivable) at the end of the second quarter.

The Second Hundred was the only segment that saw a drop in demand. It also had the lowest increase in inventory (2.3 percent), so the third quarter will likely be particularly challenging for these firms.

Despite the momentum generated by the largest firms, it was the niche/boutique firms that had the strongest first half overall. Revenue was up 7.0 percent on the strength of a shortened collection cycle (compared with a lengthening for the Am Law 100 and Second Hundred segments), as well as modest increases in demand and rates. The niche/boutique firms also posted the smallest increase in expenses, 1.9 percent, creating a substantial widening of the profit margin. Because of the accelerated inventory turnover and only modest improvement in demand, however, inventory for these firms was up only 2.8 percent. These smaller firms may therefore find the second half of the year more challenging than the first half.”

So, while mid-tier firms appear to see revenue in decline, the top-end of town was actually seeing demand and revenue momentum build.

[* The results of this report are based on a sample of 177 firms (83 Am Law 100 firms, 45 Second Hundred firms and 49 niche/boutique firms)]

2.  BTI Consulting report**

The second report is a snippet from BTI’s Annual Survey of General Counsel and goes under the bye-line: ‘Large Law Edges Out Mid-Sized Firms for New Work, with Higher Rates‘.

Here, BTI Consulting’s research found that:

“60% of law firm hires went to larger law firms (650 lawyers or more) in the last year. Clients report hiring large law as a result of increased and more pointed attention—think industry knowledge and more specific discussion of company issues. Think less about your firm statistics and more about the people to whom you are talking.”

Possibly more damning, however, was the observation that:

“The onus is on mid-sized firms to do better. Clients expect mid-sized firms to bring more client focus and more business understanding than large law—but are not always getting what they expect. And, mid‑sized firms have to demonstrate vastly better understanding of their potential clients’ targeted objectives than large law.”

[** Research is based on 280 in-depth interviews with corporate counsel at companies larger than $750 million in revenue as part of BTI’s ongoing Annual Survey of General Counsel.]

3. CommBank Legal Market Pulse Conducted by Beaton Research + Consulting

The last report is a little closer to home, Q4 2014 results from CommBank’s Legal Market Pulse conducted by Beaton Research + Consulting.

I’ll most likely review the findings of this report more closely in a post later this week – and it may even be interesting to compare them against previous Q2  & Q3 reports – but for the purposes of this post I believe we don’t really need to go past the following infographic from the report:

CBA Q42014 Graph

which would certainly seem to indicate that “top-tier” firms are far happier with overall FY2014 results than their “mid-tier” cousins.

Bringing it all together

So, what does this mean?

To my mind what these three reports cumulatively evidence is this:- while #NewLaw may have arrived, and while it may be here to stay, what is increasingly clear is that #BigLaw is not the market segment that needs to be concerned with this development.

Nope, dig a little deeper and I think you’ll find that it is actually Managing Partners in firms with revenue in the A$20-A$70 million range who will be having a lot more restless nights sleep…

A tale of two Asias

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Two separate comprehensive reports on the state of the legal market in Asia have recently been published. While both look to have been very thoroughly researched, that, and the shared (as in, this) week in which they were published, is, however, about all the two appear to have in common.

As to the two publications in question: one was published by the UK’s The Lawyer and the other by The Asian Lawyer – part of The American Lawyer stable. As such, the two publication represent a fairly comprehensive review of how international firms are fairing in the ever competitive Asian market.

The Lawyer

Turning first to the The Lawyer publication, the executive summary of which you can read here and the full report of which you can purchase here.

On reading this publication, “teething troubles aside“, you are left in little doubt that international law firms have positioned themselves well for the uptake in demand in the increasingly important Asia-Pacific legal market. Importantly, those who made the decision to invest in Asia a decade or more ago would appear to be seeing that investment finally paying dividends, with international firms in the region recording 5.7 per cent growth [in headcount] between 2013 and 2014.

In addition:

  • international law firms now make up 16 per cent of the Asia Top 50 (which is the same make up as two years ago).
  • five (six if you include KWM) of the Top 10 Asia firms hail from China – but number two in the list, Dacheng, has approved a merger with Dentons and so arguably is now an “international firm”.
  • no doubt because of the abundance of Swiss Verein these days, Australian law firm Minter Ellison sneaks into Top 10 Asia firms despite not being financially integrated but rather because the firm is integrated under “one brand”.
  • continued prosperity for internationals in the region is seen on the back of robust M&A activity and 5+ per cent growth predications by the IMF .

Overall though, content and opinion in this report can largely be summed by the comment that Freshfields Asia managing partner, Robert Ashworth, “is generally bullish about the region“.

The Asian Lawyer

Turning our attention now to The Asian Lawyer publication (and please do because the graph in this article is fantastic!) and we find we get a very different picture being painted of how the market is shaping up for US firms operating in Asia.

The context of this post, based on results of The NLJ 350 Annual Survey of the [US] Nation’s Largest Law Firms, can be summed up from its title: “Signs of Slower Growth for U.S. Firms in Asia“.

Although the post starts out saying: “Asia has been a powerful magnet for international firms over the past decade” – with the number of Am Law 200 attorneys having nearly tripled in that time, the latest year-on-year stats show a near flat-lining in these numbers.

It is also no secret that a number of US firms have been looking closely at their Asia strategy – the latest of which is Latham & Watkins, but even the US arm of DLA Piper has taken a financial interest in the Asia business in the hope of moving things along following some turmoil in the region.

It should not, therefore, be a surprise that this post finishes on the note: “Are more dramatic cuts to Am Law 200 lawyer counts in Asia coming? Stay tuned“.

So who is right?

I think you’ll agree that the two publications are very contrasting and paint different pictures of international law firms operating in the Asia legal market.

In a world of two Asias, a question arises: “Whose version is right?“.

My answer to that question is – probably both.

There is certainly some – finally some cry out! – positive signs for international firms operating on the ground in Asia (as opposed to those who may still operate a fly-in/fly-out operation). The market looks like it might start to deliver on some of the rich rewards it has promised for a long time. But to do this firms have to come to the realisation that they need to get over two crucial hurdles:

  1. they must have a strategy for the whole of Asia and not just China, and
  2. while staffing maybe cheaper in Asia, headcount doesn’t tell the story of financial size or profitability.

The two types of efficiencies law firm associates need to become familiar with…

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Really interesting article [‘What Associates Should Know About In-House Rates and Efficiencies‘] by Gina F. Rubel was published overnight (7 April 2015) on The Legal Intelligencer website – discussing the two types of efficiencies that law firm associates should become familiar with – contains a gem of a quote from an in-house general counsel that I wanted to share/pass on.

First, to put some context around the quote below by Gino Benedetti, as Rubel states:

“There are two types of efficiencies with which lawyers need to be familiar. The first is general efficiency, which is the state or quality of being efficient and the actions designed to achieve optimal results. The second is economic efficiency, which requires optimal production and distribution of a firm’s resources.”

And while both are extremely important to in-house counsel, the following quote in the article by Gino Benedetti, General Counsel of SEPTA, should give some indication to private practice law firm associates which of the two bears more commercial importance to their in-house clients:

“Associates should understand that every case does not require a full-court press,” said Gino Benedetti, general counsel of SEPTA. “Associates add value when they think creatively by identifying the core issue in dispute and focus their case work on things that impact that issue. Often, associates work on an aspect of the case that does not have any meaningful impact on the ultimate outcome. So, associates should appreciate that their time may be less expensive, but that does not justify inefficiency. Associates should communicate often with the partner or the client directly so that the client’s objective is understood and the work is driven by that objective.”

If you haven’t already, I’d like to suggest you go over and read the entire article. It’s full of sage advice from several in-house GCs.

In the meantime, if you are a private practice law firm associate, the next time your supervising partner asks you to undertake a task on behalf of your client why not ask yourself which type of the two types of efficiency you are going to bring to the task…?

Law firms: cannibalisation is the only way you can beat cheaper competitors

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The only way for a company to deal with cheaper competition was to set up a different company with an “invitation to kill its parent”

So says Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen during a recent visit to Hong Kong – as cited in an interesting article published in the South China Morning Post on Friday 20 March.

With the fairly recent introductions to the legal market of:

to name a few of the internationals, as well as Corrs Chambers Westgarth’s Orbit closer to home, makes me wonder if the legal sector has taken this message to heart and is now processing this strategy to their business.

All of this activity also reminds of the time I once overhead someone saying the day would come when Riverview Law would be bigger than DLA Piper. Might not happen in my working life, but not totally unthinkable in this day and age.

Let’s talk about your law firm’s “collegiate culture”

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Collegiate“:

‘consisting of several colleges or parts’

very formal: ‘sharing ideas and responsibilities with the people you work with, in a friendly way’

– Source: Macmillan Dictionary

Business development professionals, like myself, often talk about the need for businesses to have a “collegiate” culture if the business is to have any real chance of turning a profit. Obviously when we talk about “collegiate” here what we mean is:

“the sharing of ideas and responsibilities with the people you work with in a friendly way”

rather than:

“consisting of several colleges or parts”.

But for business development professionals who operate in the professional services space, the thought of a firm actually having or  implementing a “collegiate culture” is more along the lines of a ‘nice to have’, than a reality.

There are lots of reasons why this is so, and to be fair most of them have more to do with the benefits and rewards system that breeds behaviour in law firms than a lack of willingness on the part of any firm to implement this type of culture.

And so it was with great delight that I read earlier this week the CEO of Shoosmiths (Claire Rowe) saying that a collegiate culture was how to keep staff happy and turn a profit.

Imagine, the nirvana of happy staff and making a profit.

Actually, where:

“We have a transparent and open environment, there are no secrets. We have very honest conversations with our people to set our plans. Our staff enjoy a set-up which means they can achieve their personal objectives in a supportive way”

it really isn’t that hard to imagine.

It also shouldn’t be that difficult to implement such an environment.

So it was with equal disappointment that I read the following day, on the same website, how DWF were to “take account of non-billable work in [their] new appraisal model” (my bold for emphasis).

I’m not sure if the management/HR team at DWF are aware quite how polar opposite their publicly stated approach is to that of Shoosmiths. And to be fair to the management of DWF, they may not have been aware when talking to the publisher of the website that the Shoosmiths story was going to be published the day before.

Regardless, the message to young lawyers is clear: At Shoosmiths we believe in transparent and open environment with personal respect; whereas at DWF if you are not billing, we will give you credit for whatever it is you have done, but we are not overly happy about the whole situation!

And it is worth noting that, from an #Auslaw perspective, it is not only the young lawyers who get this message. As far back as September 2010, Bob Santamaria – ANZ Bank General Counsel – stated in the Australian newspaper that:

“Law firms now are being run more as businesses and for profit, and that is affecting lawyers, good and bad”

going on to say:

 “There will be very, very good lawyers who are jaundiced by some of that approach that is applying in the big firms.”

In other words, if you can get the foundations of your culture right – and preferably making this a collegiate culture – you are some way to attracting some of the best talent around and, hopefully by extension, some of the best clients.

I happen to agree with Bob Santamaria. Indeed, I will go one step further:

If you can get a collegiate culture going in your firm that has values aligned with those of your client, you will almost certainly be as happy and profitable as Shoosmiths.

So how collegiate is the culture in your law firm?

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ps – if you are interested in what a firm’s values might look if they were selected by their client, Cordell Parvin’s “If Your Clients Could Choose Your Law Firm’s Vision and Core Values” is a good starting point